Ford says safety kits for Crown Vic cruisers unproven

By Joel Stashenko, Associated Press, 3/11/2003 15:43

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) Two fuel system safety devices being considered by the New York State Police for the 1,100 Crown Victoria Interceptors in its fleet have not been proven to work, a Ford Motor Co. executive said at a state Senate hearing Tuesday.

Neither a fuel tank bladder nor a fire suppression device have conclusively been shown as effective or feasible in testing Ford is conducting, said Susan Cischke, Ford vice president for environmental and safety engineering.

Ford makes neither device, but is looking at them because of concerns by police agencies that the version of the Crown Victoria made for police agencies is prone to fires if struck from behind at high speeds. The state Senate Committee on Investigations' hearing Tuesday focused on the safety of the Interceptor.

Starting last fall, Ford provided plastic shields for installation on the 350,000 Crown Victoria Interceptors in service to protect the vehicles' gas tanks from puncturing in crashes. New York state Trooper Robert Ambrose was killed last December in a fiery state Thruway crash when his Interceptor, which was not equipped with the shield, was hit from behind at high speed by a drunken driver operating a Jeep.

Cischke said testing by Ford showed that the fuel tank bladder used in NASCAR race cars and some military vehicles often leaked. It is also unclear whether the bladders are durable enough for the often constant use cruisers are subjected to in various climates, Cischke said.

Fuel suppression devices douse a vehicles' fuel system with a flame retardant substance. Cischke said Ford testers found ''fundamental problems'' with the systems, such as whether fires initially doused will re-ignite and whether the system would work in a crushed portion of a vehicle.

''To be clear, neither of these technologies has proven ready for use in today's mass-produced automobile,'' Cischke said.

In testimony filed with the Senate committee, State Police Superintendent James McMahon said the force has ordered several fuel bladders for testing. State Police officials also believe the fuel suppression system they are looking at shows ''strong promise,'' according to McMahon.

''The fact that the State Police have suffered a fatality as a result of a CVPI (Crown Victoria Police Interceptor) fire, adds great impetus with regard to taking some steps to help alleviate the danger,'' McMahon said. ''We cannot avoid the fact that our patrol vehicles are routinely stopped along the shoulder of high-speed highways, and despite our best effort, will occasionally be hit in the rear at high speed.''

The chairman of the Senate committee, Republican Nicholas Spano of Westchester County, called late last year for a moratorium on the purchase of Interceptors by police agencies throughout New York until their fire safety can be assessed. He called the vehicles on Tuesday ''potential incinerators.''

Cischke faced often hostile questioning from Spano and other senators about the safety record of the Interceptors and Ford's efforts to guarantee that the vehicles are not prone to fire when struck from behind. Cischke said Ford has constantly improved the vehicle, and she defended its safety and collision records as exceeding industry standards.

Sen. Martin Golden, a Brooklyn Republican, said fires have been occurring in Crown Victoria Interceptors for two decades. At least 14 police officers have died nationally in those rear-end crashes.

''We've been hearing about these deaths for 20 years and you're telling us you have a study going on?'' Golden said. ''What have you done 10 years, 15 years, 20 years ago to prevent these deaths?''

Cischke said Ford could conceivably create an ''armored tank'' that would protect occupants in a high-speed crash, but it would not be feasible for police use. Golden fired back that Ford has failed to come up with a design of a safer Interceptor and give government policy-makers the option of deciding it is too expensive or unacceptable for police use.

''It's a disgrace,'' Golden said.

Also testifying Tuesday was Phoenix police officer Jason Schechterle, whose face was disfigured when his Interceptor caught on fire two years ago after it was hit from behind by a taxi.

''I may be the most effective living voice to force Ford to fix these cars,'' said Schechterle, who is suing the automaker for deficiencies in the Interceptor's design.

Schechterle's lawyer, Pat McGroder, told the committee he believes the location of the gas tank, which sits vertically behind the rear seat of the Interceptor, makes the model susceptible to puncturing and igniting in rear-end crashes.